A pizza delivery man is shot in the opening scene of Collateral, a new procedural drama from Netflix and BBC Two in the U.K. The detective on call is Kip Glaspie (Carey Mulligan), relatively new to the job but quickly able to tell that the crime appears to have a precision and a lack of immediate financial motive and that the victim had a Middle Eastern name.
What follows over four hours is a circle of coincidences, compromises and complicity that radiates outward and indicts a core group of British institutions from the government to the media to the military to the Church of England, and then even further outward to the consequences of the U.S.-led war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Scripted by acclaimed playwright David Hare, the challenge of Collateral for both Detective Glaspie and for viewers is parsing out which of the show’s details and characters and themes are directly connected to the murder and which are merely collateral damage swept up in either the crime’s intimate tragedy or the bigger-picture societal tragedies of 2018 Great Britain. Whether Collateral is an insightful treatise on current events that happens to have a mystery at its heart or a mystery that happens to pay lip service to current events may end up being in the eye of the beholder, but I’m inclined to lean toward the latter, which isn’t such a bad thing when you have a cast this good.
The story’s center is Mulligan’s Kip, pregnant and also a former champion pole vaulter — two pieces of information that are basically unconnected but, like nearly everything else in the show, maybe could be linked on some level. Hollywood has spent so much time making Mulligan play various stages of weepy and yearning in both the past and indeterminate future that it’s tremendously satisfying to see her being clever, tough-as-nails and frequently snarky and, mostly, entirely contemporary. My major note for the first two hours of Collateral was “Not nearly enough Carey Mulligan,” though she becomes more central and more exceptional as the series progresses.
There’s reason to expect that Collateral will become the first of a series of occasional visits and investigations featuring Kip, and maybe future installments will find a way to reconcile her age with the different details from her past that feel less like traits and more like a writer thinking, “And wouldn’t it be interesting if she were also…,” though I’ll say that the payoff for her pole vaulting was small yet satisfying (and not what you’re now thinking). Additional seasons might some use of the mentioned-but-not-really-explored clash of class backgrounds between Kip and her partner Nathan Bilk (a fine Nathaniel Martello-White).
This season also features John Simm as David Mars, an opposition party member of Parliament with a particular interest in immigration policy, whose troubled ex-wife (Billy Piper) ordered the ill-fated, instigating pizza. That’s either meaningful to the plot, like David’s vote in an upcoming referendum on unchecked government surveillance, or it’s yet another weird coincidence, like the star of Life on Mars playing a character with the last name “Mars.” Piper is underused, and Simm is mostly a mouthpiece for ideology we assume to be Hare’s. Plus, when you put John Simm in a politics-meets-crime genre piece like this, I’m instinctively going to think of State of Play and Collateral is, on no level, State of Play.
Used more effectively are Nicola Walker as Reverend Jane Oliver, who just happens to have a past with David Mars and just happens to be in a relationship with Linh (Kae Alexander), the only witness to the main murder and an immigrant of questionable legal status, and if that also sounds like a lot of coincidences, you’re beginning to see the blurry line Hare is walking between a butterfly effect-style web of interconnectivity and contrived to the point at which the protagonist’s investigation is moot.
Fortunately, Collateral isn’t really a whodunit for long. Kip wants to catch the killer, while the show wants to capture the mindset of the killer and the circumstances that led to the crime. They relate to misguided war and especially to what the series is viewing as a misapplied approach to immigration policy and how it relates to British waves of racism and xenophobia. Expect to know the difference between “asylum seeker” and “economic migrant” by the end of the four hours. What are the compromises we make to live safely? What are the compromises the police make to solve crimes? What are the compromises the Church makes in an increasingly secular world? The ideology is all familiarly Hare-ian for those who have seen his plays or the BBC telefilm Page Eight and its two follow-up projects. It’s smart and immediate, rather than revelatory and introspective.
Hare’s theatrical chops are on better display in the second half of the season, when there are a handful of tremendous two-hander conversations, boosted by series director S.J. Clarkson’s ability to get as much tension from two characters talking as the threat posed by the killer. Clarkson and the series have an occasionally cheeky approach to music, and the transitions between scenes and plotlines keep a crackling pace.
Collateral doesn’t overstay its welcome and doesn’t leave much unresolved, which is a relief. Mulligan’s character’s drive is the drive of the show and despite her pregnancy, Kip never stops to sleep or eat. It’s probably not ideal for the baby, but as Kip puts it, “I saw the chance to put something right.” Having Mulligan on the small screen and having her in this sort of role that British television does so well also feels like it’s putting something right.
Cast: Carey Mulligan, John Simm, Nicola Walker, Billie Piper, Nathaniel Martello-White, Jeany Spark, Hayley Squires, Ben Miles
Creator: David Hare
Director: S.J. Clarkson
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)